For once, they do want the same thing.
It's been happening more and more these last few years, these uneasy joint operations between the Brotherhood and the X-Men, now that it's become clear that Erik was right. Charles still denies it -- "We're not at war with humanity, Erik. We're at war with select branches of certain governments." "Keep telling yourself that, Charles, if it helps you sleep at night." -- but it doesn't matter. Charles acts, now, to protect their people; Erik can ignore a certain amount of wrongheaded rhetoric in return.
This time it's a pair of U.S. government facilities -- one on the east coast, one on the west -- where mutant children are being 'protected and trained,' which is, in this case -- as it so often is -- code for 'imprisoned and experimented on.' Security is run by a pair of mind-linked telepath twins, and the two facilities have to be hit simultaneously to have any hope of overcoming them.
Charles has Cerebro and Jean Gray; Erik has his helmet and Emma Frost. They synchronize their watches over the phone.
There's dead grass scratching against Erik's cheek, now, and the smell of smoke. He's not sure where it went wrong. It's hard to remember, hard to think through the pain. It had seemed to be going well, in the usual chaotic way -- shouting, gunfire, the steel struts in the walls bending to his will... He remembers throwing the cages open; remembers Mystique running past him, holding one half-conscious child in her arms, a dozen more following her hand-in-hand like a line of ducklings; remembers guards opening fire and himself throwing the bullets back at them with a swipe of his hand...
Wait. He remembers finding the finding the telepath, the west coast twin. They'd intended to kill him -- he was the worst kind of traitor, after all -- and he had to be neutralized if they were going to get out alive. But when they found him...
The telepath was maybe ten years old, emaciated, hardly a stick figure inside a tangle of restraints and IV lines, tears trickling from sightless eyes as he screamed and sobbed for his brother.
Erik remembers the moment of concentration it took to ease every surgical-steel needle out of the boy's skin. Then things get hazy.
And now he's outside the facility -- the facility's tumbled, smoking ruins -- and the inside of his skull feels about the same. He can't remember what happened to his helmet, to Emma and Mystique, to the children...
"They all got out, Erik. You got them out."
Charles's voice. How can that be? How can Charles possibly be here? Erik tries to sit up and his vision goes black for a moment. He half-expects his surroundings to re-form into a hospital room, Charles visiting him as he recovers from his injuries. That would make sense.
But that doesn't happen. He's still on the smoldering battlefield, and Charles is standing before him.
Charles is standing before him. In one of the prim cardigans he'd abandoned so long ago, full head of hair brushing his collar.
"I'm hallucinating," Erik says. "Am I dying?"
"You're not hallucinating," Charles says gently. "And you're not dying. Anymore."
"Come here." Charles holds out a hand, and Erik takes it, leverages himself to his feet. He expects it to be difficult, to hurt, but it's easy and painless. "Look."
He turns around to look at the patch of singed grass where he had been lying -- and realizes he's still there.
His body is, rather.
He stares at it, the boneless tumble of limbs, tangled in his cape, silver hair bright in the light of the burning building. Thin trickles of blood from his nose and ears, glassy open eyes.
It seems an eternity before Erik can make his mind work enough to say, "But I can't."
"I know," Charles says, unsteadily, and Erik looks at him sharply. Charles tips him a smile, his eyes a little too bright. "I know exactly how you feel, my friend. You actually outlived me by about an hour."
Erik actually staggers back, as if hit with a great weight. "What?"
"Finally burned my brain out in Cerebro, just like you always said I would. Trying to shield so many people from that poor mad child... But I got them all out, I think. Some of them in better shape than others..."
Erik finds that his hands are on Charles's shoulders, kneading them timidly, as if checking for damage. "Are you in pain?"
"No, of course not. I'm dead, Erik. Nothing can hurt me now. Either of us."
"That can't be right. This is some kind of... psionic trick, some side effect of fighting those telepaths..."
"I don't think so, Erik. I tried and tried to get back into my body, but it couldn't be done. It wasn't mine anymore, it was just a thing. And I tried," his voice breaks suddenly, "tried to keep you from -- tried to hold you in place when I realized you were... But I couldn't do it. I'm sorry."
"It's all right, Charles. We're going to figure this out."
"You don't believe we're dead."
"Explain that, then." Charles jerks his chin at something behind Erik.
He turns, and stares. Several feet away from them is something like a doorway, or a tunnel, floating a few inches in the air. It's made entirely of brilliant, pure white light. It gives off an air of... patience, somehow, and soothing welcome, like someone trying to coax a stray cat out of its cold den and into safe, loving arms. It's all right. Everything's going to be all right.
Alles ist gut.
"Well," Erik says after a long, long minute. "If we are dead, the afterlife is already looking better than I feared."
"It followed me here. Got brighter when you... separated from your body."
Erik regards him for a moment. "Why haven't you gone to it already? How did you come to be here at all?"
His eyes go distant for a moment. "My last few moments in Cerebro, my mind -- before it completely disintegrated -- seemed to cover the whole earth, and more besides. And I saw you. I saw that you needed me."
And was there ever a time that that wasn't true? Erik bites back the words out of habit -- then wonders at himself. If they're really dead, what reason is there to hold back now? What is there left to wait for?
But they can't be dead, they can't. "I don't have time to be dead," Erik says, trying for a joking tone. "I have too much to do."
Erik turns toward the voice, feels a subtle crush of worry lift from his chest at the sight of Mystique picking her way through the smoking, rubble-strewn grass. Apart from a thin cut down one cheek, she seems unhurt.
"Over here," Erik calls. She doesn't turn, just continues scanning the wreckage.
"Raven," Charles whispers, his voice a throb of pain. "Oh, Raven."
"Mystique, over here," Erik calls again, but it's obvious she doesn't hear.
It's several minutes before she wanders their direction. She looks their way at last, and Erik sees her posture change -- she sees them?
No, he realizes. She sees the body.
She comes running, at first, but stops abruptly when gets closer -- close enough, perhaps, to see that his eyes are open and glassy. Erik is shocked when she bursts into tears, sinks down beside him to press her face into his chest.
"Erik." It's more a keening than a word. "Erik."
It's been decades since she called him Erik.
Charles is very still beside him, tears trailing down his cheeks.
"Charles, can't you -- can't you tell her that we're here, can't you show her--"
"No. I've already tried. I can feel her, a little, a very little. But I can't communicate at all."
Erik stares at him for a moment, then casts around with his mind, searching for metal. He finds it, of course, squirreled away in a variety of places in his own armor and cape, on the grass before him. He can feel that it's there -- barely -- but he can't move it. He closes his eyes, reaches for that deep inner well that's powered his ability since the day Charles showed him where to find it.
The well is there, at his fingertips. But the metal still doesn't move.
"I don't think we can affect this plane anymore," Charles says. "We can perceive it, but we can't change it in any way. We don't belong here anymore."
Before them, Mystique is still crying, with all the helpless abandon of someone who knows herself to be alone with her grief. Erik turns away, running a hand awkwardly through his hair.
His hair. It's shorter, he realizes suddenly, than he'd been keeping it the last several years -- short like it was when he and Charles met. He looks down at himself for the first time, and sees that he's wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt and track pants.
The satellite dish. He and Charles are both wearing the clothes they wore that day with the satellite dish.
Charles has stepped past him to sink to his knees at Mystique's side, his eyes overflowing.
"I'm sorry, Raven," he whispers. Erik can barely hear him. "I'm so sorry we never got the chance to... to know each other again. I thought you'd come to me, I thought I ought not to push... I should have pushed. I'm so sorry." He leans his forehead against her shoulder, and though to Erik's eyes they appear to touch, Mystique shows no sign of perceiving it.
After a minute, Mystique gets to her feet and wipes her face. Her scales flutter briefly, erasing all signs of her weeping, and she bends and, without apparent effort, lifts Erik's body into her arms. She always was stronger than she looked.
Erik starts to follow as Mystique walks away, but Charles touches his arm.
"No point to that, my friend. Our path is this way." He gestures at the white portal.
"I can't. Charles, can't you see we can't? Our people are at war, we can't leave them!"
"No, Erik, the war is over. For us, the war is over. There is nothing we can do for them. Do you think I'm happy about that? Do you think I want to leave my students to fend for themselves? For an old man, I've done shockingly little to prepare them for this day. Do you think I wouldn't give anything for a chance to tell them goodbye, leave some parting advice? It's too late. We're gone."
"We could -- we could try, it can't hurt to keep trying for a while, maybe we'll find something, some way--"
"On the contrary, I think it can hurt. Look, Erik." Charles tugs him around to face the portal, and Erik realizes it's starting to fade. "This may be our only chance, my friend. Do you fancy being trapped here forever, forced to simply watch events transpire, unable to act? My sanity wouldn't last long. I think yours would fare rather worse."
Erik swallows, still looking at the portal. "We don't know what's through that door, Charles."
"Something better," Charles says confidently. "Can't you feel that?"
"And I'm almost sure -- almost sure -- I can hear voices, just barely. They sound happy, welcoming -- in fact, they're starting to sound a little impatient." He cocks his head, smiling thoughtfully. "'Papa.' There's a little girl calling 'Papa.'"
Erik drags in a shuddering breath, his eyes flooding. Anya.
"Come on, Erik." Charles pulls him toward the fading portal. But Erik finds that his feet won't move. "Erik?"
He looks over his shoulder, where he can still see Mystique making her way down the hill, toward the waiting Brotherhood. What will they do now? Who will lead them? What if they screw it up, get themselves killed? Let the humans win? He can't leave. He has to keep fighting.
"Erik." Charles puts his hands on either side of Erik's face, forces him to meet his eyes. "Aren't you tired? God knows I am. Don't you finally, finally want some peace?"
Erik swallows, puts a hand over one of Charles's. "Charles..."
"We don't have to fight anymore. For us, the battle's over. We've mustered out." Incredibly, he smiles. "Stand down, soldier. As you were."
Erik looks at the white doorway before them, looks down at the blue eyes he's loved so poorly for so long. We don't have to fight anymore. He feels a peculiar flicker in his chest, something he's not sure he recognizes. It might be hope.
Charles tugs him toward the door again, and Erik goes a step, then – "Wait."
Charles turns, and Erik's nerve nearly fails him. But this may truly be the last chance.
"There's something," he says, "something I swore I would do just once, before I died."
"Better late than never," Charles says, eyes gone a little wide, making no resistance as Erik pulls him close and touches a trembling hand to his cheek. "Erik?"
Erik leans in and kisses him, trying to brace for awkwardness, brace for rejection – but that kind of thinking doesn't last long because Charles's lips are just as warm and sweet and eager as he ever dreamed, and more, and it's easy, it's so easy and good and why can't the afterlife just be this moment forever?
"That's something you might have done earlier," Charles says at last, gasping, "considering how bloody long I've been in love with you." His voice is casual and a bit irritated, but the slight tremor in the last few words, and the tears building in his eyes, give him the lie. "But we can talk about it later. The portal's almost gone, look. I think we need to hurry."
Erik lets Charles take his hand and lead him through the door.